Public Release: 

Montana State University geologists join international team seeking answers from remote volcanoes

Montana State University

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Sometime next spring, a Montana State University geologist and his graduate student will hike to the top of two volcanoes to help answer questions about the creation of the continents.

Part of an international team headed by Cornell University, MSU geologist Todd Feeley and doctoral student Gary Michelfelder will fly to South America to investigate persistent activity below Uturuncu in southwest Bolivia and Lazufre on the Chile-Argentina border.

Neither volcano has done any huffing, puffing or ash spewing lately. Scientists thought the volcanoes were dormant, Feeley said. But cutting-edge technology revealed that the continental crust in those areas has risen one to two centimeters a year for at least a decade. Researchers believe magma is flowing into the magma chambers.

To better understand how magma accumulates in the continental crust and erupts at the surface, Feeley, Michelfelder and their collaborators will drive over primitive dirt roads to some of the driest and remotest areas of the planet, Feeley said. They'll hike part-way up the volcanoes -- carrying all their food, water, gasoline and equipment -- and set up base camps. When they finally reach the top of the volcanoes, they'll start collecting samples for a new five-year $3.5 million project funded by the Continental Dynamics Program of the National Science Foundation.

They'll be hundreds of miles from the nearest towns and 20,000 feet high, Feeley said. He added that the hot, dry climate provides the perfect environment for pristine samples. The total lack of vegetation makes it easier to interpret satellite images.

"It's the absolute ideal area to do this study," Feeley said.

MSU's portion of the grant, $405,000, will allow him and a graduate student to spend four field seasons in the central Andes, Feeley said. A long-time researcher in the area, Feeley will study lava and ash from previous eruptions. Michelfelder will concentrate on rocks, especially their composition.

The grant will also pay at least two MSU undergraduate students a year to analyze the samples he and Michelfelder collect, Feeley said. The students will work in specialized laboratories at MSU, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

One goal of the NSF project is to learn more about the continental crust, a feature that has been detected on no other planets in the inner solar system, Feeley said.

"Life would be much different if we didn't have continents or the continents were different sizes and shapes," he added.

The project could also help scientists predict large volcanic eruptions and understand processes on other planets, Feeley said. It will relate to active volcanic systems in other places of the world, including the Yellowstone caldera.

"This region of the Andes has had 10 large caldera-forming eruptions in the last 10 million years, so we hope to provide a realistic assessment of the likelihood of another super-eruption," said the NSF project summary.

Cornell University scientists have been studying the central Andes for almost three decades, said Matthew Pritchard of Cornell, overall leader of the NSF project. They detected ongoing activity about 11 miles deep, using a sophisticated system called InSAR, or Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar. InSAR is a remote sensing technique that uses radar satellite images.

"After about a week of looking at dead volcanoes, I can still remember viewing the interferogram that included both Uturuncu and Lazufre for the first time and realizing, 'Wow, something really is moving,'" Pritchard said.

"Our group and others have found a total of about eight areas of deformation in the central Andes, but Uturuncu and Lazufre are special because they are among the largest areas of volcanic ground uplift and seem to be long-lived," Pritchard continued. "They're also special to me because they're the first ones I found."

Feeley said InSAR was only developed in the past 10 years, so the upcoming work is cutting-edge and couldn't have been done earlier.

Prichard said he looked forward to interesting findings from two enigmatic volcanoes and working with researchers from many nations and disciplines.

"Including Todd, we have quite a team of experts, and I know that I'm going to learn a lot about the other techniques, and I'm hoping that we'll start up some new collaborations that will last for decades," Pritchard said.


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